In Trey Edward Shults’ post-apocalyptic chamber drama It Comes At Night (2017), fear of death, outsiders and the unknown opens the door to the monsters of human nature. Set in an unspecified dystopian future, the film presents us with a world ravaged by a highly contagious plague. Among its survivors is Paul (Joel Edgerton), who has undertaken to protect his family in an isolated cabin by imposing an austere set of rules, one of which is supremely and arbitrarily enforced above the rest: Never are they to leave the cabin at night. During these hours, the red door separating them from the outside world must remain locked. Meanwhile, Paul’s son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has recurring nightmares of approaching the gleaming red door – implying that something does indeed lurk behind it, waiting to be unleashed as soon as it is opened after dark.
But it is not a monster that comes knocking, as one might expect in a more conventional horror film. Rather, it’s a family of three survivors no different from Paul’s, seeking water and refuge. Though he allows Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough) and their son Andrew to stay provided they strictly observe the household laws, Paul maintains an uncompromising guardedness toward them. To him, they are still outsiders – potential traitors, or possible carriers of the virus. The remainder of the film is about the deadly escalation of distrust that ensues when Travis mentions finding the red door unlocked one night and it is discovered that he and the other family’s son have become infected with the disease.
With minimal narrative and high stakes, Shults constructs an unrelentingly tense viewing experience. Depriving us of flashbacks and backstory, he makes it impossible for the audience to completely trust any of the characters. Their paranoia becomes our own, as Shults drops us into their calculated game of survival. At first, Paul’s treatment of his guests strikes us as excessively cruel – as he ties Will to a tree and interrogates him to make sure he isn’t hiding any ulterior motives or lying about his family not being contagious. Later, however, when Will appears to change his story, we wonder if Paul wasn’t crazy to suspect him after all.
Travis is the only character whose inner world we glimpse. He is haunted by dreams of his plague-ridden grandfather (killed by Paul at the beginning of the film to ensure no one else contracts the disease), which communicate both his guilt and a premonition of his own eventual fate. Among Shults’ characters, he appears more inclined to reach out past the barriers of distrust, taking pity on the strangers when they arrive and convincing his father to let them stay.
As the film’s narrator, however, Travis is unreliable. His nightmares become increasingly blurred with what actually unfolds inside the cabin, and it is possible he only dreamt finding the red door unlocked. Of course, to debate whether the door was really opened – and if so, who opened it – would be to fall into the same trap of suspicion as the characters. It would miss the point that Shults seems to be making, which is how swiftly fear annihilates trust and how quick the families are to suspect each other once they assume the rules have been broken.
Numerous critics have noted how It Comes At Night evokes Shults’ earlier portrayal of vicious family dynamics in Krisha (2015), which are likewise catalyzed by the arrival of an outsider. Viewers of It Comes At Night will also find similarities to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a father’s unbending quest to keep his son alive in a post-apocalyptic world frequently finds himself at odds with his son’s pleas to treat the strangers they encounter with empathy. Reflected in Shults’ bare-bones visuals and camerawork are The Road’s scant resources, scavenging survivors, abandoned boarded-up houses, and constant wariness.
But if Cormac McCarthy’s characters ultimately retain their humanity while calculating their survival, the same cannot be said for It Comes At Night, where man, with his fear of death and instinct to survive at any cost, proves to be the most precarious monster of all. The dark logic that opened the film with the killing of an infected family member reaches a second implied pinnacle at the end, as the camera lingers over an equally dismal and disturbing scene.
In the colorless confines of Shults’ film, a single bright object stands out: the red door. Its hallucinatory quality and terrifying magnetism in the dream sequences are a nod to Kubrick, as are the eerie disembodied tracking shots that lead us through the hallways. At night, the cabin even takes on the architectural confusion and surreal claustrophobia of a maze mirroring madness.
Like the boy who hallucinates the blood spilling through the red elevator in The Shining (1980), Travis’s repeated gravitation toward the red door in his dreams serves as a vision of the violence to be unleashed once it’s believed to have been opened. The final fatal crescendo in It Comes At Night has much less to do with the unnamed physical virus than it does with the virus of fear. Again and again, Shults’ film makes us wonder what monsters and perils lurk outside the cabin, only to have us realize the horror already lies within.